- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2006

From combined dispatches

LONDON — Pet cats might have to be kept indoors once bird flu arrives in Britain, scientists said yesterday after the death of a cat in Germany from the disease.

The case — the first of a mammal dying from bird flu in Europe — means that cats may be able to pass the H5N1 virus on to humans and that the disease may spread more easily than thought.

Even more of a concern is the possibility that cats could help the virus adapt so that it spreads more easily between mammals, making a human pandemic more likely.

The infected cat was found on the Baltic Sea island of Ruegen, where the highly pathogenic form of H5N1 bird flu was detected in mid-February among wild swans.

But the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva sought to play down concerns yesterday, saying the likely transmission of bird flu from cats to humans is remote.

“There is no present evidence that domestic cats play a role in the transmission cycle of H5N1 viruses,” WHO said in a statement. “Unlike the case in domestic and wild birds, there is no evidence that domestic cats are a reservoir of the virus.”

The agency’s spokesman on bird flu, Dick Thompson, said, “The risk from direct exposure to any animal … is vanishingly small.”

Taking no chances, Germany yesterday ordered that cats be kept indoors and dogs on leashes in reported bird flu areas in five states.

Thomas Mettenleiter, president of the Friedrich Loeffler Institute, where the cat was examined, said, “It is very likely it contracted infection by feeding on sick birds or carcasses.”

Dr. Thijs Kuiken, the leading expert on the spread of bird flu to cats, said keeping cats indoors should be considered.

Dr. Kuiken, a veterinary pathologist at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, said a range of species has now been infected in the field with the virus, including cats, dogs, pigs, leopards and tigers as well as humans.

John Oxford of Queen Mary’s School of Medicine, warned that those who think that killing all birds in a quarantine zone would be enough to contain H5N1 “are in for a bit of a nasty surprise.”

“There are plenty of cats around farms, and they have big circles in which they move,’ he said.

Yesterday, Sweden became the ninth European Union nation to be affected by the bird flu outbreak after the discovery of the virus in two wild ducks. And Switzerland confirmed its first case of the highly pathogenic strain.

Meanwhile, in the Bahamas yesterday, experts probed the unusual deaths of 14 birds on a southern Bahamian island to determine whether they marked the first cases of bird flu in the Americas.

Ten flamingos, three roseate spoonbills and a cormorant were found dead in the park, authorities said.

Experts said any number of things, including poisoning or weather could have caused the deaths, adding that the birds would be tested.

To date, the Western Hemisphere has had no confirmed case of bird flu, which has spread from Asia to Europe, Africa and parts of the Middle East, killing more than 90 people since it surfaced in 2003.

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